An unofficial shrine to late supreme leader Mao Zedong and other heroes of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's mythology has been destroyed in the central Chinese province of Henan, RFA has learned.
Photos of the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall in Chendong village of Henan's Luohe city showed a series of seated statues of the late Chairman and other revolutionary commanders smashed to pieces.
Local sources said they were destroyed by "unidentified men," but social media comments suggested that a powerful political figure was likely behind behind the attack.
An article on the Maoist WeChat group Red Classics launched into a tirade over the incident, which it said had upset many people.
"Who would have the gall to act against our founding leader and our revolutionary heroes?" the article said. "Who dares to violate the people's beliefs?"
Mao is an enduringly popular figure in spite of presiding over mass famine and 10 years of political violence known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the Mao Zedong museum in his hometown of Shaoshan, Hunan, sees more than eight million visitors a year.
But former leaders and public figures can also be revered as part of Taoist and Buddhist folk practice, which honors departed ancestors with offerings in shrines and temples.
At one such shrine in Hunan, Mao's statue, flanked by figures in People's Liberation Army uniforms, presides over an altar where people leave tightly packed incense sticks to burn, as well as offerings of fresh flowers and paper money usually burned for one's ancestors.
In another temple, visitors kneel before a gilded statue of Mao, which stands, one arm raised in salute, in the same room as Taoist protector deity Taisui Laojun.
Others who venerate Mao set up impromptu Buddhist or Taoist shrines in private buildings.
A form of murder
The Luohe memorial hall was in a similar vein, and the Red Classics article referred to the destruction of the images as a form of "murder."
"There is no way that the killer is an ordinary citizen," the article said. "The murderer must be a powerful class enemy with a deep hatred for Chairman Mao and the Communist Party."
The writer called on the Luohe police to find and arrest the perpetrators as soon as possible, punish them accordingly, and repair all of the statues.
Many social media users echoed the article's sense of outrage.
"There is no need to investigate the destruction of the privately run Mao Zedong Memorial Hall in Luohe, because we know who did it," user @naoshikunren wrote, in an apparent reference to the government.
Another user commented that there must be a high-ranking official in the administration of Xi Jinping behind the attack, for it to be allowed to happen.
Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo said Chinese people are still very divided about Mao.
"A lot of people think that the Mao era was actually better than today, but they wouldn't necessarily want to go back there," Zha said. "Of course, there are also a large number of people who realize that the Mao era was a disaster, so you have this huge divide in public opinion."
He said the smashing of the memorial hall was unlikely to have been carried out by people who simply disagreed with a rosier view of the Great Helmsman, however.
"A lot of people don't like him, but that doesn't mean that they would do this," Zha said.
Confronting the past
Veteran Hebei-based journalist Zhu Xinxin said the divisiveness of Mao was largely the result of a failure by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to get to grips with the recent past.
"The divide in the general population is there because the Chinese Communist Party hasn't really processed and reflected on the Mao era, including the Cultural Revolution that he started," Zhu said.
Zhu said the ideological approach taken by government propagandists to the appraisal of Mao's legacy meant that there is a widespread lack of understanding of that era of Chinese history among its people.
"It also shows that people in China lack the habit of independent, critical thought," Zhu said. "They just want a figurehead who will protect their interests, rather than the rule of law."
The third plenum of the 11th Communist Party national congress in 1978 made a ruling "on certain historical problems" that criticized the political violence and turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, but which stopped short of serious criticism of Mao.
Then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping said at the time that future generations would have to make a final evaluation of Mao's legacy.
Some 180 public statues of Mao remain in key locations across China. Statues are strictly vetted, and must comply with state guidelines before being approved.
Unapproved statues have been demolished by the authorities as illegal structures.
Statues should be 7.1 meters tall, in a reference to the founding of the Communist Party on July 1, while the total height must recall his birth-date, at 12.26 meters, and must depict the Chairman standing, either waving the right hand or with his hands at his back.
Official media continue to promote Mao's image, with regular features about pilgrimages to his birthplace, or young couples who choose to get married under his fixed gaze.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.